Unintended consequences – – how much harm can doing good cause?

What in the world is Swedow?

In writing about GIK and deworming meds, I’ve learned some fancy words, like Albendazole, Mebendazole and Swedow.  I’ve also started reading discussions in places I usually don’t go.

For example, Good Intentions are not enough is a great blog written by Saundra Schimmelpfennig.  She has lots of posts about the complexities of doing foreign aid well.

While visiting that site, I read a guest post by Juanita Rilling:  Compassion on Sale

She has a sobering discussion of the unintended waste of sending drinking water as part of humanitarian relief. She says:

Here’s an example: 100,000 liters of clean water hydrate 40,000 people for a day.  That amount of water purchased in-country costs about $500.  The same amount of water purchased in the US costs about $50,000.  But here’s the kicker – transportation expenses, customs fees and delivery charges add between $150,000 and $700,000 to the cost of sending potable water that can be purchased near the disaster site for $500.

So you could hydrate 40,000 people for a day at a cost of $500 or something in the range of $200,000 to $750,000.  Which sounds like a better deal?  Does one of those options sounds like a waste?

I also stumbled over a huge debate on sending t-shirts overseas.  Just a bit of background.  Each year, there are about 100,000 useless t-shirts after the Super Bowl that proclaim as winners the team that lost.  Makes perfectly good sense to me – the NFL needs to have lots of shirts ready to go no matter who wins.  I get it.

What to do with the ones that are worthless when the clock hits zero?  The NFL donates them to World Vision who sends them overseas and gives them away.  This year that scenario kicked up a lot of discussion in the blogosphere.

One of those posts is by Charles Kenny at Foreign PolicyHaiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-Shirt.

How’s this for a sobering introduction to the topic of taking stuff that we just don’t want here in the U.S. and shipping it off to some foreign land?  Mr. Kenny writes:

there’s even a Twitter hashtag, #SWEDOW, for “Stuff We Don’t Want,” to track such developed-world offloading,

Here’s my quick recap of Mr. Kenny’s article:

First, what we don’t want may or may not be what is needed by people in distress. If we make that call here, we have a really good chance of sending stuff that is in the ‘don’t need’ category.

Second, it very well might cost more to store and transport that donated thingie than it would cost to buy a reasonable quality item locally.


Bringing in shirts from outside also hurts the local economy: Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto estimates that increased used-clothing imports accounted for about half of the decline in apparel industry employment in Africa between 1981 and 2000. Want to really help a Zambian? Give him a shirt made in Zambia.

That third point is the one that breaks my heart.  Shipping in clothes probably damaged the apparel industry across the continent.  If we try to help out by sending something, we could undercut the local economy.  How many people are now out of work in Zambia because of doing good?

Check out Mr. Kenny’s full article for a very fast introduction to the issue of knowing what you are doing before you “help”.

If you want some cutesy snark that will make you sad at the same time, check out Tales From the Hood.  The anonymous author invented the SWEDOW term.  He  is inactive but has kept the site on-line.

If you really want lots of detail on the t-shirt issue, Good Intentions has a list of 70 posts on the topic.

Two quick comments on the idea of unintended consequence.

I’ve discussed this issue previously in my posts here and  here.

Second, sending shoes to Haiti can destroy the microenterprises some people have created of selling shoes – What IS it with the SHOES?

Hmm. To meander off on a tangent, maybe pushing outcome measurement would be a great idea.  Hydrating 40,000 people is a good outcome. The cost of $200,000 over $500 counts for zero.  Causing half the shrinkage in the apparel industry is a negative outcome that counteracts the other program efforts in-country and could very well turn your ministry outcome into a big fat zero.

Update: Next post in this discussion is How to create inflation when kindness was intended – unintended consequences 2

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